Ruth Orkin, 1951
Whenever I write about “stuff that’s bad for ladies” I usually get responses from ladies, saying “yes, that happens to me too and it does suck! What can we do about it!” I also get responses from gentlemen saying “it happens to us too, why aren’t you writing about that?” “Not all men are like that, stop tarring us with the same brush!” and sometimes “Shut up, you misandric wench!”
Gentlemen seem to get particularly aerated about sexual harassment and street harassment. They are disbelieving when I explain how often I experience it, or they’re quick to point out that they’re at risk of getting attacked when in a bar or club.
I get harassed on the street a lot. On average, three to five times on every journey I make from my flat to the tube station or vice versa. I make at least 10 such journeys a week, so I’m usually getting harassed at least 30 times.
Some women get much, much more than this. Some women experience hardly anything at all. And as far as I can tell, it has fuck all to do with how attractive you are, your body shape, what you’re wearing or the way you hold yourself. It usually happens to me when I’m alone, and I walk fast. These are the only common factors I can see.
It makes me feel angry, confused, upset, guilty and scared. Sometimes it makes me laugh. And very, very occasionally it makes me feel sexy and happy. Then guilty.
I don’t think all men are horrible, sexist morons who want to objectify women and make them feel afraid. I think it’s a difficult and confusing time to be a man, as we’re enveloped by a media that is sex obsessed and yet not sex positive. I keep an eye on the Graun and the Mail and this is how my newsfeed looks most days: “DON’T BE A HORRIBLE SEXIST! That’s nasty! Look, Kelly Brook! Sexy bikini pictures! Knockers! Saucy! Look at those girls in short skirts! Sluts. Why aren’t there more older women on TV? Who is celebrating their curves? Who is flaunting them? Skinny women are unnatural! Eat the burger! Don’t eat the burger! VAGINA!”
Now everyone is confused. And I think this must have something to do with the number of strange men who regularly imply that they would like to penetrate me. I doubt most of them actually want to bone any of the ladies they holler at. It would be exhausting. But having strangers suggest that you are no more than the sum of your orifices is pretty exhausting too.
I was thinking about the hollers and harassment that have stuck in my mind, and that if I recorded the memorable ones, there might be some scientific way of analysing the data and joining the dots.
1.) Age 12 (first sexual harassment - awwww!) In jeans and weird embroidered t shirt, on a family holiday in France. Was with parents and younger sisters. Waiter pinched my bottom on the way out. Nearly vommed. Panicked. Liaised with closest sister on what to do. Consensus: “Don’t tell Dad.”
2.) On the way to Slutwalk in scuffed ballet pumps, knee length dress, biker jacket and 100 denier tights. Older man looked me up and down and said “Oooh, you’re gorgeous, you are. I would.” He was with two other men, I was with two other ladies. Felt angry and annoyed.
3.)Coming back from Blondie gig at Kenwood house last year, waiting for bus. Was with a friend. Wearing a summer dress with a bikini top underneath. Three men in their twenties holding a picnic hamper kept looking over at me, saying “tits” and sniggering.
4.) Royal wedding day, off my face on mushrooms coming down escalator at Brixton station. In maxidress and straw hat. Man on opposite escalator going up shouted “look at those tits! SEXY! I’M TALKING TO YOU! BLONDIE! DON’T IGNORE ME!” I burst into tears and said “GIRLS DON’T LIKE IT WHEN YOU DO THAT! IT SCARES THEM!” (Also mistook some motorbike covers for ghosts on the way home and cried again, which is not relevant but interesting.)
5.) Last night, walking from Clapham South tube station, in knee length flowery dress, cardie, specs, scraped back hair. A guy in his car slowed down, wound down the window and said “hey baby, you getting in?” Was shaken up, felt tense and scared. Walked very fast. Also a man across the street might have been making sexy noises at me, but they might have just been noises.
6.) Day before yesterday, man at pavement cafe said “hey beautiful, may I join you?” as I walked past. Was in black maxi dress and flip flops. Felt amused - I think he meant to ask me to join him.
7.) About six months ago, buttoned blue winter coat, two scarves, glasses fogged up with rain. Man at Superdrug till said “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re the most beautiful girl I have seen all day.” Felt touched and madly happy. Then I felt like a horrid dirty sisterhood betrayer. Concluded that he thought I looked like a melted woodland creature and needed a confidence boost.
8.) Pretty much every time I go to Brick Lane, various guys outside curry houses say “beautiful lady, come for a curry!” or variations on that theme. I usually smile for a second, get cross with myself for being taken in by the marketing ploy and then piss myself laughing imagining bad, farty bloated curry sex with the strange men.
9.) The week I spent in Paris in 2007 when I couldn’t pick my nose without someone asking if I’d suck their dick. The guys who followed me and my friend in their car for five streets. (We called the police. They laughed.) The club we went to for about eight minutes where I had to explain to three different men why it wasn’t OK to put their hand up my skirt before we left. The man who followed with a semi, which was educational for me because it was the first time I had heard the expression “semi”. I wore the same pair of yellow patent leather peep toe shoes all week, and I think I must have trodden in something that provokes testosterone. Felt usually annoyed, sometimes scared, occasionally amused.
10.) Last spring, heatwave, had been sunbathing in garden. Chucked dress over bikini to pick up dry cleaning, stopped for a Mars bar. Well spoken man in suit was in front of me in queue. He turned around and said “you know, I’d love to come on your tits” using the same tone as someone in the Question Time audience saying “I don’t think there should be a congestion charge in Market Harborough.” I replied “ummmm...Har!” Avoided his eyes. Stayed in the queue and avoided his eyes because I wanted my Mars Bar. Felt amused and grossed out. Had a shower when I got back to my house.
I’m a fairly proactive lady - so what can I do to stop this? Dress differently? Never go out alone after dark? Get a massive t-shirt printed up that says “THERE’S NO PUSSY HERE. BETWEEN MY LEGS I’M JUST LIKE A KEN DOLL”? I’m not feeling any of those things. Until the pay gap is closed and people start paying writers in cash, not LOLs, I have no money for evening taxis or an armed guard. And being allowed to choose my own clothes is one of my adult human rights. If I want to go out in a light up thong, Einstein wig or Power Ranger costume, I should be able to do so without getting murdered, yes? Or raped. Or made to feel like I might be. And I think the above proves that a harasser will not be put off by unflattering t shirts, smeary specs or other non-sexy accessories. The Awesome Women Of Twitter had some great comebacks here, and ihollaback.org is a successful movement dedicated to ending harassment - but I think there should be some official legislation.
Perhaps on the spot £200 fines for making people feel uncomfortable with unwanted sexual attention? Or banning them from dating, spending time with their partners or being in a bar or club for six months - and giving them a Lindsay Lohan style anklet to track where they are and who they’re with. Does it sound a little extreme? Of course. But I think it could make millions of people feel a million percent safer when they set off on all the little journeys that make up their day.